PETER WISE DISHES ON HIS FANTASTICALLY UNCOMMON WORLD
My fascination with and appreciation for great designers and couture houses has been a lifelong thing, undoubtedly borne of my mother’s stint as a high-end womenswear buyer for a southern California chain of department stores when I was very young. Some of my earliest memories have to do with things like her pimping me out to walk runways as a childrenswear model for said chain, and four or five year old me going to the local radio station to record mother-son banter spots for the womenswear department which she helped run.
This was the mid 70’s, when on the other coast New York City was exploding with creativity, inhibition and ridiculously Good Times. Funnily enough, several people who I would later in life come to know and in some cases collaborate with were smack dab in the thick of it all, one of them being a gentleman creative called Peter Wise.
Naturally, then, it only took me a day or two from the May 14 release of Netflix’s hit limited series Halston for me to wolf down all five episodes. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, having gone into it well aware that some who know the subject better than anyone definitely did not enjoy it. Many things struck me about the series, but my attention was particularly drawn to the prominence of and importance placed on Halston’s ever-present orchids throughout.
Having binged the Netflix dramatization, I switched over to something that I had started watching a few years ago but for some reason never finished, and that is Frédéric Tcheng’s fantastic 2019 documentary, also titled Halston. Of course, orchids are featured throughout, and late in the film, the man who was actually in charge of Halston’s treasured plants appeared onscreen. And that man, to my shock and awe, was none other than the aforementioned Peter Wise.
I first got to know Peter about a decade ago when I enlisted his longtime friend and business associate, the famed photographer and Andy Warhol protégé Christopher Makos, to do some photography and art direction on a music project. We hit it off then and have spent a fair amount of time together and had many a conversation since, but the Halston thing never came up (not that it would — Peter, unlike many who were part of the Halston-Warhol-Studio 54 era in any way doesn’t go around talking about it ad nauseam). So of course once the documentary ended and I had pulled my jaw up off the floor I grabbed the phone, and went all “holy shit!’ on him, insisting that he spill.
And of course he happily obliged.
Christian Josi: Okay, Peter. So I have known and collaborated with you and Christopher for quite a while. How did I not know you were Halston’s orchid guy, in charge of the storied plants that were so much a focus of and factor in his life? Anything else you want to tell me while I have you?
Peter Wise: (laughs) Yes, I was Halston’s orchid guy for a few years. I had been working for his original orchid guy who burned out. So I got a call one day from Halston asking if I’d work with him on a benefit and retrospective for the fashion designer Charles James, of whom Halston was such a great fan. It was a large reception and dinner event at The Brooklyn Museum and he wanted me to do the flowers. So I kind of just dove into it. I guess I did okay because he was quite pleased and he just said “I need somebody to do this. You got the gig.”
CJ: And the rest, as they say, was orchidacean history…I was struck, as many likely were, by the focus on the orchids which were featured and referenced throughout both the Netflix Limited Series and the Tcheng documentary. Anyway, please continue.
PW: This was a time when orchids were much more rarefied. You couldn’t just buy an orchid in a supermarket, for instance. They were only available from established growers. I happened to know some of the really good ones, so I was able to rent some of their very best plants when they came into bloom. And orchids can bloom for a month or so. So the basic business was to rent plants, schlep them to New York and place them in clients’ homes and offices. I mean, I worked with Susie Gutfreund, Liza… Halston of course was my biggest client, Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein…but Halston, at any one time we had oh, 20 or so plants at his townhouse at 101 East 63rd, and then he’d have another 20, 25 plants at the Olympic Tower studio and showroom…
CJ: And it was your job to wrangle them, basically. Sounds…stressful?
PW: It was really very simple. Orchids are delicate as far as transporting them goes, especially in cold weather. But Halston had a garage at his house and the Tower had this fabulous elevator, you know, that you would drive into and would take you downstairs so you could unload the car and move them upstairs. So once there, in situ where they’re going to stay, they just sort of do their thing. You need to water them occasionally, but not so much, you know. They’re bromeliads, which are plants that essentially grow on trees and get their water from the air. The very worst thing you can do with orchids is to over-water them.
CJ: Right? I learned that the hard way. I want to talk more about Halston and orchids, but let’s rewind a little bit. So you didn’t set out early on to be a florist or a floral designer, right? What was your original “thing” and what brought you to New York? You were born and raised elsewhere I recall?
PW: No, I didn’t set out to do that. I’m primarily a painter — a fine artist. I paint and I draw. I got a degree in fine arts and moved to New York right after college at Amherst. I was born in Boston and raised on Cape Cod.
CJ: That’s right, now I remember. And so you moved to New York and I know enough about you to know that you ended up hanging out with Makos and found yourself right square in the middle of that whole Halston-Warhol-Liza-Studio 54 mix. How did you initially get caught up with all these characters? Not really a group one just randomly falls into…
PW: Geez (laughs). That’s a tough one. Let’s see. I made friends throughout the art world because I’d gone to Skowhegan Art School in school in Maine and they eventually invited me to be the Dean of Students. At that time I had about sixty students and five full-time faculty and then visiting artists would come in on the weekends. So I was exposed to a huge swath of very well established artists, you know, like, Alex Katz, Louise Nevelson, Wayne Thiebaud, people like that. And through those contacts, I met some people in New York, one thing led to another and I soon got to know Christopher…
PW: Yes. And Christopher immediately wanted to introduce me to Andy, which he did, and we hit it off. Christopher was working for him at that time, art directing a book of Andy’s photographs, which became Exposures. So Christopher was going to The Factory regularly, and I started just going socially to visit them. And Andy bought a few of my drawings and we got to be pretty good friends. We started traveling together with another person whose company Andy enjoyed. The four of us went to Aspen three or four times, the Caribbean, Florida…and of course Christopher had done a lot of traveling with Andy all over the place. So we were having quite a lot of fun, just the four of us and, you know, we would celebrate Christmas at Andy’s house on East 66th street — nobody ever went into that house — it was really fun. I have to say.
PW: Yes. And, you know, Man Ray paintings and Jasper Johns paintings and Rauschenberg paintings…the best French art deco furniture covered in snakeskin and that kind of stuff. Just outrageous stuff.
CJ: How old were you at this point and how fast was your head spinning?
PW: At this point I’m 24, 25 years old. And I just started thinking, oh, well this is, I guess, it’s just what New York is like. And of course I was living through this unbelievable period, which quickly changed drastically. But it was a great place creatively because it was small and creative types could afford to live in Manhattan without having to go into the outer boroughs. So it was a much more tightly knit community. You could hop on your bike and go see anybody. You know, Keith Haring was not that far away. Jean-Michel (Basquiat) was not that far away. There was a sense of community and interaction that doesn’t exist anymore at all. Then of course, you know, AIDS started up in 1981, ’82, and that changed everything.
CJ: It sure did. These films we are talking about really serve as stark reminders of how it just came out of nowhere and wreaked this unimaginable and heartbreaking havoc.
PW: Changed everything.
CJ: I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to be right there, ground zero, so to speak. There are so many things I want to touch on, but I know we’ve only got a certain amount of time on the phone and on the page. Let’s talk a little bit more about you and your own work. You’ve painted all along and I know you’ve written at least one book because I have it…
PW: I did a series of paintings. I did a series of paintings of surfers and waves. And my publisher published it as a book and I showed the work at Leila Heller’s gallery when she was up on Madison and 78th street and we had quite a bit of success with it. And I’m still working to this day both with Christopher and my own things. I’m going to be in a show in the Hamptons this summer at a very good gallery out there. So. Still working!
CJ: And so you went from friend and companion to Christopher to basically being his business associate and archivist, right? How long have you been actually working together?
PW: I guess I started working in earnest when he moved his studio. From 123 Watt Street to 20 West 20th Street in 2000, on the top floor of that building, which is where we have worked together since, and in fact where we met you for the first time.
CJ: Indeed. That place is like a treasure chest.
PW: Beautiful light and high ceilings, not that big, but perfect. Anyway, at about the same time he was commissioned by the Spanish Province of Valencia to do a pictorial view of the whole place. So for a year, every month he would go to Spain for a week to 10 days and go to different parts to photograph. And I went on several of those trips and I did all of his dark room work for a few years, and quite a bit of his printing. When he switched to digital during the Valencia project, we closed down the dark room part of the studio and I began in earnest to help put his stuff in order, because it was all over the place. A lot of these prints that were printed in the seventies and eighties are considered vintage prints. You know, they’re printed on papers that don’t exist anymore. They’re old and much more valuable than we ever thought. So it’s been a process of helping to preserve and catalogue all of that and build his business.
CJ: So you and Christopher continue to this day, a great partnership. Personally, I love you both just like crazy, but professionally working with you guys is a unique experience. You two are very yin and yang. I e-mailed Bob Colacello last week after seeing him so prominently featured in the Halston doc and the Studio 54 one which I also just got to. I mentioned that you and I were going to do this piece and he wrote — well first he wrote that he had no idea that you were Halston’s orchid man which made me feel a little less clueless because Bob knows everything and you guys have known each other forever — but he went on to write “Peter is the perfect partner for Chris — Mad Makos and Mr. Wise.” He called you “steady, sensible, and loyal.” And I agree completely.
PW: That’s very nice. Bob and I always got along. I like that. I like Bob.
CJ: Anyway, okay. Again, So many things we could talk about. Let’s get back to our theme. What did you, as someone who was as close to the inner workings of HalstonLand as anyone, think of the Netflix series?
PW: The Ryan Murphy thing. Yeah, it was a dramatization and I think he purposefully didn’t do much archival research. He was going for kind of a dramatic story, which is fine. But a lot of things portrayed were not as they really were, which is fine too. You know, it’s not a documentary.
CJ: For sure. Been a little easy for some to forget that bit, I think.
PW: The main problem I had with it was the casting of Ewan McGregor. Halston was was six foot three and he wore clothes beautifully. And because he was so tall and he was intimidating because he didn’t even have to open his mouth. He could just stand there and, you know, all in black with a white trench coat draped over his shoulders and sort of look like Darth Vader a little bit. Now I don’t mean that in a nasty way, but you get the idea. McGregor did get some of his mannerisms to a T and his voice wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t Halston. It was just a poor, in my opinion, a very poor casting choice…
PW: You really needed somebody that was, you know, a better example of this big guy from the Midwest.
CJ: I liked him. I loved Krysta Rodriguez as Liza. But I would imagine in any dramatization, right…they’re certainly not made for people who were around, you know. Particularly people who were in the room. So I get how it would look very different to you than it does to someone like me.
PW: Well, yes. But I mean, they made some other decisions that I think were ridiculous. For instance, they implied that Halston owned the Montauk house and that he sold it when he sold his house in Manhattan to head to the West Coast. Halston actually rented that house. It was Andy Warhol’s house. Andy and Paul Morrissey owned it. And I thought that was an unusual editorial thing because frankly, I would have been more glamorous and interesting to get into how he was renting it from Andy.
CJ: I’m glad you mentioned this because when I was watching it, I kept thinking how similar the it looked to Andy’s Montauk house, which I’ve obviously seen tons of photos of over the years and in so many places. Speaking of which, where was Andy in the series? Unless I missed a scene or something, there was no Andy in the entire series and he was just as much a part of Halston’s world as Liza et al, no?
PW: Yeah, I know. That was very surprising. Well, Ryan Murphy is doing a series on Andy for which Christopher and I have both been interviewed for hours, and it’s going to be a three-part thing coming out on Netflix in about a year. So that’s why Andy wouldn’t be in there, I think. He’s saving it.
CJ: Ah…mystery solved! Okay. So let’s wrap this with a little more about the orchids. Why were they so critically important to him? That he be surrounded by them at all times?
PW: You know, he just loved them. Like he loved beautiful women, dressing beautiful women. He loved simplicity. He loved color. I mean, his colors were fabulous. And he loved beautiful, colorful orchids and the fact that they were so rare at that point — you had to have both an appreciation for them and money — especially if you’re at any one time maintaining up to 60 plants, you know, that’s real money.
CJ: Was it really forty grand a month? The orchid bill?
PW: It was a lot. But they made him very happy.
CJ: OK give us a last good Halston orchid story. Was he bitchy with you about them?
PW: He couldn’t have been nicer. One time right after Thanksgiving, I was at Olympic Tower all alone because it was a holiday, just checking on the orchids and everything and moving them around a little bit. Halston comes in unexpectedly with nieces and nephews who were visiting him for Thanksgiving to show them the studio. I remember he picked them up to show them the north side view up to Central Park. And he said, “See that? Central Park! And over there’s the children’s zoo — that’s where they keep the children!” And so they eventually leave and he’s walking around and says of the orchids I been tending to, “Well, this looks good, but, you know, I think it could be better. What do you think?” So for the next hour and a half, literally he and I both shifted pots around, mixing and matching, not really talking much, just doing it. And so we sort of finished up and he lit a cigarette and said, “Well, now, that’s pretty good, isn’t it? And I said, “Yeah, that’s very good, Halston.” That’s the kind of a guy he was to me, at least. He was a joy to work with.
CJ: So the extreme temper that’s portrayed in the series. You were never on the receiving end of that? Was that overplayed?
PW: One time I was. I wasn’t able to deliver flowers one holiday Monday and he calls — I wish I’d saved the answering machine tape — and he says, “This is Halston. I’m wondering why it’s MONnday. And why there are NO new flowers up here.” And that was it. Click. “Thiiisss is Halstonnn…” I’m like, and who else would it be? Anyway, that’s the only time he ever got mad at me, but he used to really unload on lots of people that’s for sure.
NOTE: An abridged version of this piece appeared in Inside Hook NY on June 11, 2021